In the list below, each year between 1950 and 1999 is twinned with a pop song that says something about the music scene of the period. Many of the selections are artistically wonderful, while some of them, for lack of a better word, aren't. But together they offer some clues about how we as American music fans got from there to here.
Written by Huddie Ledbetter and John Lomax
Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, lived a tough life: In 1918 he was given a thirty-year sentence for murder that was commuted in 1925 after a Texas governor whom he'd begged for mercy in song finally capitulated. His version of "Goodnight Irene" was too ragged for widespread acceptance, but a take by the Weavers, accompanied by Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra, not only established it as a standard, but fueled a folk boom that would continue well into the Sixties.
Written by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston
Just how much vocalist Brenston had to do with "Rocket 88" is a matter of debate, especially among Turner supporters. Nevertheless, the significance of the song is undisputed. It was written for the rhythm-and-blues audience, but it's essentially a rock-and-roll tune--some say the first.
Written by Johnny Mercer and Paul Lincke
Songs like "Rocket 88" were initially dismissed by the music industry as "race music" unsuitable for the pale-faced majority. If African-Americans wanted to be heard, then, they had to jump into the mainstream with both feet. Hence "Glow Worm," an old German song reconfigured by Mercer and popularized by the Mills Brothers, an ultra-mellow-sounding black harmony group.
"(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window?"
Written by Bob Merrill
Of course, "Glow Worm" was the height of soulfulness compared to many of the other pop songs issued during the early portion of the Eisenhower administration. "Doggie," sung with childlike mousiness by Patti Page and interspersed with disembodied ruff-ruffs, was as good an argument as any for the rise of rock.
"Rock Around the Clock"
Written by Max C. Freedman and Jimmy De Knight
Bill Haley and the Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock" in April 1954, but it didn't become a nationwide sensation until the following year, when it was played over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, a muckraking picture about out-of-control high-schoolers. The response of kids in the theaters to this musical explosion served notice that the times were about to change.
"Baby, Let's Play House"
Written by Arthur Gunter
Elvis Presley wouldn't score his first Billboard pop blockbuster until 1956, when "Heartbreak Hotel" first hung out its shingle. But "Baby, Let's Play House" made an impact in the country market via one of Presley's wildest performances. His vocal stuttering ("Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-baby"), the unstoppable rhythms and Gunter's mildly lascivious words are playful indeed. Grownups might not have gotten it, but the little girls understood.
"Why Do Fools Fall in Love"
Written by Frankie Lymon and George Goldner
The Presley blitzkrieg, which struck full force in 1956, set off a youthquake that shook up the music biz like never before. Suddenly, someone as young and black as Lymon, whose group was called the Teenagers, could become a heartthrob for young women of any skin color. No wonder the Klan was worried.
"Rock & Roll Music"
Written by Chuck Berry
Prior to 1950, few popular performers wrote their own material; rather, they selected it from the inventories of professional tunesmiths--and sometimes received a bogus songwriting credit for doing so. But with big labels ill-prepared to capitalize on rock, singer-songwriters got an opportunity to perform numbers they'd created themselves. Of the early rock scribes, none was better than Berry.
Written by John Davenport and Eddie Cooley
Musicologists know that "Fever" was actually written in 1956 and first performed by blues singer Davenport, aka Little Willie John. But the success two years later of the rendition by Peggy Lee, a performer who first came to fame during the pre-rock era, showed her peers that joining rockers made a lot more sense than trying to beat them.
"What'd I Say"
Written by Ray Charles
Gospel is every bit as key to the African-American musical tradition as blues, yet there was always a stigma against using a style associated with worship and religion in a secular context. With "What'd I Say" and several of his other compositions, Ray Charles shattered this notion for all time, adding gospel's call-and-response vocals to the pop/soul vocabulary.
Written by Paul Desmond
Jazz began as dance music, but as the music became more challenging and esoteric, the fan base slowly, sadly started to shrink. The divorce between pop and jazz was never total, however, and on occasion, artists with the right temperaments were able to bridge the genres. With the Top 40 hit "Take Five," Dave Brubeck, a structuralist from the cool school, was able to do just that.